When my mother passed away 18 years ago, she left me keeping one of her darkest secrets. My mother had, on multiple occasions, attempted to take her own life. She was an addict of both alcohol and prescription drugs and she suffered from depression and anxiety. My mother also had several psychotic episodes but was never diagnosed with a specific mental illness. During the last three years of her life, she attempted to take her own life on four separate occasions. With the recent press of several high profile suicides by hanging, I felt compelled to share her secrets with you.
The first two times my mother tried to end her life, she was in the midst of a drug-induced psychosis and attempted to overdose on prescription medication. Both of those times she was discovered in the act and was rushed to the hospital. Once there, she suffered the indignity of having her stomach pumped and being given charcoal to bind with the medications in her airways. The third time, she swerved her big four-wheel drive vehicle into a ditch on the shoulder of the road. For that attempt she ended up in the hospital with multiple bone fractures and a partially collapsed lung. After each incident, my mother was given treatment for both her injuries and the perceived cause of her suicidal thoughts, her addiction. Once my mother was healed from the automobile ‘accident,’ she participated in an outpatient rehabilitation program which helped her temporarily shed the addiction but did very little to address the underlying, undiagnosed mental health issues.
My family felt hopeful that the outpatient therapy would be the help my mother needed. Unfortunately, like most women, she needed more assistance than an outpatient facility could provide and her downward spiral continued. The fourth time my mother tried to take her own life she used the phone cord and tried to strangle herself in the living room of my childhood home. I was the one who found her.
One of the biggest myths perpetuated by Hollywood is that death by strangulation is quick, easy, and clean. Supposedly it creates little damage and leaves the person in a peaceful sleep-like state. I know about these myths because my mother explained them to me from her hospital bed as she recovered. Let me be honest with you, it was not quick, it was not easy, and it most certainly was not clean.
When I found my mother, she was in severe distress. I have no idea how long she had been struggling but she had undeniably been struggling. Her fingers were bloody from clawing at the cord. Her face was swollen and covered in purple spots called petechiae. Her tongue was protruding and dry as she labored for each breath she drew. Overall, it was the most horrible sight I have ever witnessed but the worst part was the look of utter desperation in her eyes. As I stood in the doorway holding my six-month old son trying to understand what I was seeing, she was laying in the floor fighting to live from moment to moment while trying to free herself from her own improvised noose. No horror movie ever produced could recreate the terror that both she and I experienced at that moment and words cannot convey the soul consuming emotions I felt.
The next few moments passed in slow motion with every move I made seeming to take an eternity while being clearly etched into my memory. I remember placing my son on the ground and tearing the cord from around my mother’s neck. I remember attempting to ease her breathing while trying desperately to reconnect the phone cord in order to dial 911. I remember the operator asking endless questions and promising that help was on the way. I remember the burning sensation in my eyes as I sobbed for that help to please hurry. Most clearly, however, I remember my mother mouthing two words at me over and over . . . “I’m Sorry.”
Regardless of what you may be feeling, suicide is never the answer. It is not easier for those you leave behind and it is never quick and easy. Fortunately for both of us, my mother survived her attempt final at suicide. She was, however, left with lasting effects from reduced oxygen and restricted blood flow to her brain during the time she struggled to live. She regained her voice, however, and together we completed several rounds of counseling. She lived for a short time after that incident and passed away from unrelated health complications but not before we communicated our love for each other and worked through many of her issues. She never could explain what pushed her over the edge. She just recounted feeling as if she couldn’t do anything right and the fear that she was just causing her family pain. In her memory, there was no specific trigger for her attempt. She just decided that the world would be better off without her. When she saw me in the doorway holding her grandson, she realized that she did have a reason to live. That, she explained, is why she offered me her apology in what she felt certain was her last breath.
When I write about mental health and addiction, I do so from the heart and with first hand experience and the hope of sparing you and your family from the trauma and grief that I endured through during the first half of my life. Strangulation suicide is rising in popularity because people view it as less damaging, quick, easy, and painless. This simply is not true. I know better. Attempted strangulation suicide or attempted death by hanging, is a slow and painful process that can lead to serious, permanent injuries and multiple ongoing disabilities. Strangulation can cause cerebral anoxia (which can lead to brain damage), laryngeal fracture, cervical spine fracture, tracheal fracture, pharyngeal laceration and carotid artery injury. In addition, permanent scarring and petechiae (purple spotting of skin and tissue) can occur.
If you feel that you have reached a point where you cannot continue, reach out for help. Know that your life is valuable and you are loved. If you cannot find meaning in your life, seek guidance or make a change. Never give up.